Just Monday morning, April 22, Marj, guide dog Lana
and I answered a 5:00 alarm. We were determined to quickly stuff the last
few bags and boxes and us in the small Colt wagon and set off for
Indianapolis, over 700 miles away, our halfway point back to Minneapolis.
The plan was for “departure by 0600,” as Colonel Pat Locklear (ret.),
former Tybee mayor and friend, would say. Our enthusiasm and hope ran
high, even though this was our fifth attempt at leaving Tybee early. To
paraphrase a retired biologist we know, who habitually drank a tea glass
of cheap port before lunchtime, “there’s a preponderance of data
indicating that 0600 is just a little too dang hopeful.”
Some time later, easing the car from beside our cottage toward 2nd Ave., Marj remembered the frozen chicken stock we had promised Dennis and Kathy Hutton. They had just a week before hosted our wedding in their beautiful backyard, so we felt we owed them something. Neither of them had served as mayor, spent years in the military, or was yet retired, although Kathy is a nurse and therefore is always and ever on duty. They are also our closest island friends, with whom we have exchanged many joyous, albeit playfully competitive, meals. A promise was a promise, so I let the engine fall back to idle, pulled the break up, and ran back into the unlocked cottage. When I returned with the bag of frozen stock, the sun was just clearing the top of the sand dunes, indicating that even with daylight savings time, 0600, indeed.
The car finally moving, we retrogressed to the far south end of the island, for the Hutton’s house, in fourteen blocks turning east at Tybee’s very first traffic light, to park beside Dennis’ SUV. We caught him rushing off to teach his unmentionably early English class at Savannah State. “Take stock, Dennis,” I said handing him the bag. Unlike 98% of his sleepy students, Dennis was sensitive to a cliché, so, frowning, considering my sentence, placed his lecture notes and Norton anthology of Good Written Essays on the hood of the Isuzu. Even though Dennis is nearly my height and, well, more filled in, he graciously accepted the bag, shook my hand and waved Marj goodbye. I got behind the wheel again and quickly backed out. It was then our trip back began.
Just as we had often wished we could leave a little earlier and more closely match our ETOD (Estimated Time of Departure, pronounced E-TOD by Colonel Locklear), we also knew that we faced so many miles that arriving an hour sooner or later in Indianapolis was only one hour. This meant that heroic TOD’s didn’t net us much. In fact, isn’t Tod the German word for death? Anyway, punctuality doesn’t win you points on Tybee, any more than, as I’ve found, wearing a tie to social events. We’ve only lived there a year and seven months, or about a third of the past five years, so you’d think we’d have that down by now, but after all, we are Yankees, that rude group who think they won the War.
So we toured north on the main drag, Butler Ave., trying to imprint every detail of how it looked that day, so, come mid December, we could know how much it had changed, how many fewer trees and glints of the ocean, and how many more condos and detached triplexes.
All of that is still clear, as is the rise over Lazaretto Bridge, and how in seconds we’d placed a creek between the island and us. Then we drove the eight miles of causeway, passing miles of marsh to the south, which was still half-filled with saltwater, some two hours past sky-reflecting high tide. More vaguely, I recall Savannah and how crowded but rapidly moving traffic flowed on Bay St., as we turned and turned and soon sped up on I-16 toward Atlanta, some 260 miles west.
Some time in there we began listening to a reading of Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which, to quote The Washington Post, is “an intellectual adventure story…sensational, thrilling and packed with arcana.” Though so rung up on the book’s back cover, this is an understatement, an adventure whose main characters perform “tetrapyloctomy” for a living. As Eco informs us, tetrapyloctomy is “the art of splitting a hair four ways,” and I could not think of a better way to fill all those hours of miles. We reached Atlanta by late morning, blinking only once during this or that hair splitting and having to backtrack for I-24 and Chattanooga.
Since we needed to fill so much time, we alternated with sides of Peter Mayle’s new book French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew, about his love of and misadventures concerning the French and their glorious food. Perhaps I should be talking about the South and Tybee and our four and a half months there, but just now I’m describing the drive partway home, and driving long hours requires sustained alertness. It’s books and more books that prove the best means towards that self-sustaining end.
From Chattanooga, I-24 took us to Nashville, home of the Grand ol’ Oprey, and home of at least one of our Tybee friends. Traffic rushed past us—we were barely exceeding the speed limit—as aggressively as did cars in Atlanta. Somewhere around Nashville we decided on Champaign, Illinois, as a resting point, instead of Indianapolis. This meant about 800 miles the first day, making day two an easy “Sunday drive” of only about 600 miles.
I think it was our second year of traveling to and from Tybee when we decided to complete the trip in two long days. We concluded this not because of motel expense, or by having to face, often, bad, very non-French food at restaurants along the freeways, but because the car was loaded with four months of stuff, our computers for our business and, always, more than we had any business taking. We, then, started the two-day push to avoid unloading the whole car, piling it on the second motel bed. We all own far more things than we either need or use, but moving to Tybee for a third of each year requires that we take along much of what we actually use. This useful, necessary stuff one holds dearer than all those things left behind that, if the house were to burn, we couldn’t come close to remembering when the insurance form asks, “List items lost.”
Just out of Tennessee, over 120 miles northwest of Nashville, I-24 turns steeply north, cuts through the western nub of Kentucky, and enters Illinois. Not wanting to run out of gas anywhere during the endless climb up that tall state, we pulled off at the first exit for gas, onto US 45. Pulling beside the pumps at a BP station and Waffle Hut, I got out, removed the gas cap, turned and stared at the pumps. Something was not quite right, but I was road-numbed and very slow on the uptake. I even got out my Visa and looked for the slot in the pump and stood there.
The pump had no hoses. Even this didn’t quite register. I looked at other pumps and they, each one, had no hoses. Uh huh, I thought, with only the barest hint of understanding. “Something’s strange here,” I may have said to Marj. Just to verify my hunch and the obvious, I walked into the Waffle Hut and asked the waitress what was up. “They closed the station till June,” she said, as if that were the commonest thing. “Thanks,” I said, and didn’t order anything to eat. I returned to the car and we pulled out for a station on the other side of the I-24.
We drove back down the frontage road, past its barbed wire fence and turned back onto busy US 45. Just after I turned, the car made some sort of snap noise. As quickly, the steering wheel felt as though a rear tire had flown, so I pulled up onto the low, rounded cement median, intending to stop the car just as the car stopped on its own accord.
Hopping out, I saw that the “flat” was worse than that—the whole wheel and tire was angled askew. With the edge of the right side of the car in the left north-bound traffic lane, I turned on the flashers, told Marj I’d go up and call a wrecker, but before leaving the car watched that passing traffic made room to pass.
Back at the Waffle Hut, the waitress led me to the phone in the kitchen where, in five tries, I reached my insurance company emergency service and, with the help of the cook and the waitress, communicated enough information so that the woman on the phone could tell a wrecker where on Planet Earth we were. A reader might guess that I was not used to having car trouble. In fact, this was the first time, for all our trips to Tybee and other places that we’d had so much as a flat tire, and this, I knew, was hours and many dollars more than a flat tire.
I thanked the cook and waitress and jogged back to the fence, which I decided to climb over to save time, barbed wire and all. Reaching the car, all was well, and Marj said that one or two cars had slowed and, with our flashers flashing and one rear wheel stuck out and tipped, one driver had asked, “what happened to your wheel?” In response to this, Marj said she kept her window closed, door locked. I admit, I have this idea about Illinois being a bad place, but that’s because I equate the whole state with the congestion of Chicago, where cops, I’ve heard, tell drivers not to stop for lights at certain intersections, for their own safety. It turned out that the nearest Illinois town just down the road was Metropolis, yes, home of Superman, and a long, long way from evil, dangerous Chicago.
As I waited for our wrecker, car after truck slowed or stopped across the road, each driver asking if he could do anything. Knowing that we’d likely stay in Metropolis for some time, and seeing that, I think it was, the third pickup that stopped was empty in back, I said, “yes, you can do something.” The guy, with his wife, pulled the truck around and behind us, his tires also up on the median. I explained our problem and that we needed to haul all our stuff up to the Best Western next to the Waffle Hut. About then a trooper pulled up, and in seconds, the trooper, Marj, the guy and his wife and I were all hurriedly filling the back of his truck with all we’d taken to Tybee. The guy (named Chris) and Marj drove up to the motel for Marj to check us in. Meanwhile, Chris’s wife, the trooper and I, standing by his wildly flashing patrol car, waited and, so it felt, bonded.
Chris’s wife had, she related to the young trooper, been “really mistreated and falsely arrested” in nearby Kentucky. I let them talk that out, but neither the trooper nor the woman showed the least stress. In fact, she explained what happened, the trooper said something or other, and the whole thing turned to talk about insurance rates.
One wrecker passed, then paused, but as a taxi driver that intuits that a ride belongs to some other driver, so he kept going, turning east onto I-24. Not much longer, but after Chris had returned with his truck and the conversation had turned to all the features of the trooper’s car’s computer, another wrecker arrived, the one from just the other side of the freeway, from the very station we were headed for when the axle snapped. Chris and his wife soon left and the trooper and the wrecker driver, who apparently knew each other, began joking around. The driver said, “suppose they gunna arrest me for that?” But I didn’t know the context. And it was all in fun.
Soon Billy got to work, had the car lifted up from the rear, the loosed wheel assembly tossed on the back of the wrecker, and my car key in his pocket (we would learn each other’s names on Tuesday). The last thing he said was “call me ‘bout ten ‘n da mornin’.” The trooper, of course, offered me a ride up to the Best Western, but I said I needed to walk off some adrenaline. He understood this, having helped at countless snapped axles and worse, so we shook hands and I dodged across the two lanes of southbound traffic, across the ditch, up the steep bank and over the barbed wire fence.
Marj said she was calm but kept standing in the motel room as we ran through recent events. I said that the mechanic-wrecker driver had said the car might be ready tomorrow, late morning. Marj said, “it better be ready then because this and all motels around Metropolis are booked for the rest of the week.” I asked why, and she said, “annual quilters’ convention.” I said, “quilters’ convention?” Anyway, it was now late enough and we were tired enough and still had our own food we’d packed for a two-day trip.
Another term that a character in Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum used was Pylocatabasis, the art of being saved by a hair. I thought of this, as I lay awake in the Best Western, room 106. However unusual a snapped axle was, one had snapped on our car and with us in it, and we were certainly saved by several hairs. We were moving barely ten miles per hour, not, say, seventy; we were in front of a motel one night before quilters besieged the area; we didn’t have to yet face the food at the Waffle Hut; and Billy the mechanic (though I didn’t yet know that was his name) said he’d have the car on the road again sometime tomorrow. As far as I was concerned, still mentally floating as one does after 600-+ miles on the road, that was a comforting handful of hair.
The next morning I call Vetch’s Service garage, and speak with the guy who’d hauled off our broken car. The axle had indeed snapped, and Billy (that’s when he said his name) had never seen one do that before. The axle was factory welded to the suspension arm and the whole thing therefore needed replacement and he had called Chrysler and there wasn’t one left in the whole US of A. But “no problem,” he assured me, “I’ll find one in salvage—call me tomorrow.”
We headed for the motel office, filled with old and recent glossy posters of Supermen, to ask about lodging for the next night. Luck was with us, for although room 106 was booked for the next four nights, there was one room left on the other side of the building. The catch was that the conference marked the seasonal change for local motels and the rate per night would double. It so happens that Marj’s mom makes quilts, and neither of us wanted bad feeling to spill over to her, but this news about per-night rates doubling due to hundreds of quilters, each so neat and tidy with no hair out of place, will, no doubt, forever change our feelings about that subset of humans.
Forecasted thunderstorms did not blow in Tuesday, so Marj, Lana and I set out with camera for Metropolis. We’d heard there was the world’s largest statue of Superman right in the middle of town, and we were ready for a little ordinary unreality.
The problem was that US 45, a divided four-lane, and the only way to get to town, allowed little space on either side for pedestrians. In fact, just as the night before, many drivers stopped and asked if we needed help, thinking—there’re on foot, so something must be wrong. After about two miles of cars and trucks and semis whooshing past, we parked our ambition to see Superman at a McDonald’s, across from a used car and drive-through bottle shop, to gather energy for all the traffic back to our new room, #122.
Feeling thankful and, certainly, saved from dozens of oncoming vehicles by many hairs, we returned to #122. Dividing our life between Minnesota and Georgia, or M & G, had led us to many conversations about how freeing and challenging life in two places can be, but what of this new temporary variation, of being stranded? And all these tidy women who live to stitch scraps of material together? The effects of them and us on local economy? This is only thinking on the micro, but how could we quantify our measure of luck, the Pylocatabasis that made all this so easy?
Metaphysics and ultimate meaning faded, and we soon had to face what to do for dinner. As noted, we had just read Mayle’s French Lessons, and I had been in the kitchen of the Waffle Hut when I used their phone, observing the nursing home nature of their “cuisine.” Just north, and equally as non-French, was a Ponderosa steakhouse. We chose the latter because it claimed to have a salad bar. We’ll not now detail our experience there. Actually, we recommend a reader visit one, if a final shove is needed before launching into a all grapefruit or onion skin diet, as Weight Watchers fare must be wildly superior.
The next morning the car was nearly ready when I called at 9:30. Billy, who didn’t even like going by Bill, had found the part somewhere in nearby Tennessee, the truck had arrived early and he and his son were bolting the Colt back together. He asked what room we were in and said he’d drive it over in a little while.
True to his word, he pulled up forty minutes later, and I rode back to his shop to pay what I estimated was a third of what that work would have run in Minneapolis. When I asked if I should take it easy at first, Billy said, “just drive it down the road.” We did that and returned to the home we live in for two-thirds of each year. We routed by Marj’s aunt and uncle’s in Burlington, Wisconsin, so our usual two-day trip turned into four days and three nights, and we arrived in Minneapolis much more rested than any trip before. But we owe our arrival to the help and friendliness of many people in far southern Illinois, people who have probably never driven up to big, bad Chicago, the city that so dominates their state. Our arriving home, whole, healthy and rested was also due to dumb good luck, to Pylocatabasis, being saved by multiple hairs in Metropolis, home of Superman.
Return to Bylines